The phenomenal choreographer who transformed Bollywood dance into a new genre was only three when she played the younger version of actress Shyama in the black and white film Nazraana. Through the 1950s, she worked in several other films, albeit as a background dancer.
Dance fascinated her; she started learning it under the guidance of yesteryear’s famous choreographer, B. Sohanlal.
At the age of 13, she ended up marrying the choreographer, who was 30 years older than her.
"I used to study in school those days, then one day my dance master Sohanlal tied a black thread around my neck and I got married.”
That Sohanlal was already married and a father of four children was kept from Nirmala. Sohanlal became a father for the fifth time when Saroj bore him a son soon after their marriage. She was just 14 at the time of delivery.
The marriage hit a rough patch soon after the birth of their son; Nirmala separated from her husband, but they continued to work together on their choreography assignments. The estranged couple united to give their marriage a second chance after Sohanlal suffered a heart attack, and welcomed a daughter soon after. But the marriage was destined to collapse and it did when Sohanlal wriggled his hands off all responsibilities and moved to Chennai, deserting his young wife with two children to fend for.
She had to struggle for the next few years, but gradually work started to roll in. In 1975, she married businessman Sardar Roshan Khan and the couple was blessed with a daughter. Revived as Saroj Khan, she had named her newborn Sukyna. The son from her previous marriage was known as Hamid Khan, the daughter was named, Hina Khan.
She was present in the Bollywood scene, though not dominantly, through the 70s and 80s, but became a household name after the legendary Hawa Hawai featuring Sridevi put her on the Bollywood map like a landmark. There was movement, mischief, and a barrage of expressions that had never before blended in a single song like this. And then came Katey Nahi Kat Te from the same movie, with which, the actress-choreographer duo laid down the definition of sensuality. Main Teri Dushman, Dushman Tu Mera (Nagina), Ek Do Teen (Tezaab), Mere Haaton Mein Nau Nau (Chandni), Morni Baga Ma Bole (Lamhe)... and list here on is endless.
In her lifetime, Saroj Khan choreographed over 2000 songs.
But, her experience with the industry wasn’t as pleasing lately. She was being challenged by a new generation of choreographers; Farah Khan and Shaimak Davar became favourites with kingpin banners. Jay Borade was roped in by Rajshri Productions for the Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, a musical that had immense opportunities for a choreographer to stage his excellence.
For the past few years, she was seen judging dance shows on televisions. In an interview last year, the Dola re Dola choreographer confessed that Bollywood had stopped giving her work. She lost the choreography of ‘Suraiya’ of Thugs of Hindostan to Prabhu Deva. She had courted some serious controversies in her final years. Choreographer Ganesh Acharya was about to file a case of defamation against the dancing veteran in January this year, who said,
“I will file a defamation case against Saroj Khan and her team who are defaming me and stooping so low to do that, they are doing this because their business has gone in vain they used to earn money sitting at home illegally and I am against it so will put all my efforts to fight against them.”
She had also drawn massive flak for defending the casting couch system stating the exploitative practice at least provides livelihood in return. Honest to her craft, perhaps she failed at playing her cards with the slyness this unforgiving fast-paced industry demands.
Survived by her husband, Sardar Roshan Khan, and children from both her marriages, the three-time National Award-winning choreographer was laid to rest at a Malad cemetery in Mumbai in the presence of her family.